Blogs Crosscuts Jenny Jones

Jenny Jones is the program manager for the Walker Art Center's Film/Video department.

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema series and blogs

From November 4 to November 20, the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota will be presenting And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema, a film series showcasing the diverse international cinema of the “second wave” of the feminist movement. Spanning three decades and more than five countries (including Czechoslovakia, Cuba, England, and the […]

Surname Viet, Given Name Nam

From November 4 to November 20, the Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota will be presenting And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema, a film series showcasing the diverse international cinema of the “second wave” of the feminist movement. Spanning three decades and more than five countries (including Czechoslovakia, Cuba, England, and the U.S.), these films exhibit a complex, groundbreaking intersection of eclectic themes, perspectives, and innovations.

Especially exciting are the post-film conversations these 15 audacious works will likely spark. Lively and thought-provoking, they are films that will not be soon forgotten after the lights come up. Professors from the University of Minnesota will be on hand to introduce the screenings, delineating just how bold and influential they were in the context of international cinema. In addition, Bette Gordon will be on hand to introduce her two films in the And Yet She Moves series, Variety and Empty Suitcases.

The Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota are also collaborating on a series of blog posts meant to encourage and deepen post-film analysis and conversation. After each film, students from Paula Rabinowitz’s course, “Reviewing Feminist Cinema,” at the University of Minnesota will be posting to the Walker Film blog, contributing to what we hope will be an impassioned collective response to movies that encourage considerable reflection. For a full schedule of films in the And Yet She Moves series, visit calendar.walkerart.org—and be sure to check back on this very blog for articles and audience reflections following each of the 15 films.

To inaugurate the series and introduce the upcoming flurry of blog posts, Paige Sweet (PhD, Lecturer, Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota) has written and contributed the following essay. (She has also compiled all of the program notes for the series, collecting a wealth of eclectic, impassioned writings and analyses that are as complex and innovative as the movies to which they respond.)

And Yet She Moves: Reviewing Feminist Cinema

By Paige Sweet

Aside from sharing the loose periodizing banner of “second wave feminism,” the films that are being shown as part of the film series, And Yet She Moves, encompass a set of concerns that continue to animate feminist film theory and filmmaking. Specifically, questions of self-representation, theories of (feminine, embodied) experience, and the politics of language are examined and reworked through all of the films, which experiment with narrative structure, voice, and cinematic conventions. In addition, nearly all the films engage issues related to the economic conditions of filmmaking, whether because they were self-financed (which nearly all of them were), or because they existed at the margins of economic institution (like the films from Cuba and Czechoslovakia, which were supported by socialist state filmmaking systems).

The fact that the issues explored in these films endure as topics of feminist film scholarship might give us pause—to what degree are the feminist goals of the 1970s still with us? In what ways have they resurfaced in modified forms? But equally important is the insight the films shed on their own historical and political conditions, and the exigencies of second wave feminism. The transnational range of topics and locations, the critical assessment of class and economic inequality, and the philosophical interrogation of pleasure indicate the broad critical scope that the films examine.

There now exists something of a feminist film theory canon, which includes many essays written in the 1970s and 1980s. However, there is not exactly a feminist film canon to accompany it. This is not to suggest that there should be one (feminist scholars have amply demonstrated the problems of canonicity). Rather, as the films selected for this series suggests, it might be significantly more useful to examine a cross-section of films from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that display a wide range of feminist filmmaking practices and theory-in-action.

The conjunction of theory and practice that these films evidence can be seen in their mutual investments in re-thinking narrative, voice, and cinematic conventions. In terms of narrative, feminist films have sought ways of moving beyond the shadow of Oedipus. The dominant narrative structure of classical Hollywood cinema mimics Oedipus’s plight; moreover, according to Freud, the “complex” that Oedipus navigates corresponds to the path everyone must successfully navigate in order to become a “normal” subject. The neat correspondence between cinematic storytelling techniques and psycho-social processes has often been identified as limiting women’s roles on and off the screen. Perhaps most obviously, within such a narrative structure, (masculine) positions of authority are reinforced and feminine subjects are valued only as objects of desire or else vilified as sources of fear. More than simply an issue of representation, this narrative structure implicates the very language we use to communicate experience, to communicate embodiment, or to communicate period.

Undoing Oedipus, or re-working the Oedipal trappings of narrative, has thus, not surprisingly, informed many feminist film projects. Seeking another entry point into storytelling, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen turn to the Sphinx in their film, Riddles of the Sphinx. Emphasizing verbal aspects, which are more closely related to the maternal and the (Lacanian) Imaginary, the film incorporates a plurality of voices, whose repetitions and syntactical disruptions articulate an alternative relationship to language and disperse the stable (Symbolic) subject. Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daises) also negates the Oedipal narrative structure. The female characters resist the masculine imperatives of desire bound up with Oedipal modes of pleasure and ways of knowing. Like Riddles, Daisies employs a “nonsense” mode of speech to inscribe a distinctly feminine articulation of desire.

Not all the films rework Oedipal structures. Bette Gordon seeks to undermine the implications of Oedipal ways of knowing from within. In Variety, for example, Gordon exploits cinematic conventions that connote what Laura Mulvey calls woman’s “to-be-looked-at-ness.” The result is a quietly powerful polemic about appropriating the act of looking in a way that emphasizes its inherent sexual dimension from the perspective of female embodiment and experience. Similarly, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, could also be called a study in looking that contests classical cinematic conventions. While there are beautiful long takes of quotidian household chores, the viewer is repeatedly denied the look that typically drives cinematic desire.

Resisting dominant cinematic forms is also what inspires Sara Gomez’s De cierta manera (One Way or Another). Disrupting the easy border between fiction films and documentary, Gomez draws on the political importance of documentary filmmaking in Cuba while troubling its claims to authenticity by enveloping it within a fictional story that deals with race, gender, and romance. Trinh T. Minh-ha takes documentary film in another direction that interrogates its claims to transparent presentation of Truth, focusing especially on the ways that all filmmakers frame their subject matter and questioning the (filmmaker’s) use of voice to empower or silence its subjects. Trinh’s documentaries are at once critical explorations and theoretical constructions of documentary filmmaking practices. Chick Strand also challenges documentary practices, especially those of early ethnographic films, through assemblage techniques that link original footage with found footage. Blending highly personal subject matter and abstract imagery, Strand’s films simultaneously explore and transform the world.

If feminist films, and film theory, have seemed at times to overemphasize the haunting presence of Oedipus, the range of films presented here reveal that Oedipus has also been erased, forgotten. In their search for language, a distinctly feminine voice, or alternative stories, these films disrupt easy connections between sound and image, subject and object, representation and reality. Reviewing feminist films from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s recalls the struggles of second wave feminism. They also provide a view into the future: taking the world apart and putting it together in different ways, they imagine ways of being that have yet to be seen.

(Almost) 20 questions with Miranda July

Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), who last visited the Walker in 2000 to show video and performance work from her Big Miss Moviola project, returns on July 8 to present her second feature, The Future, which premiered at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. Deftly balancing bathos and pathos, July’s film […]

Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), who last visited the Walker in 2000 to show video and performance work from her Big Miss Moviola project, returns on July 8 to present her second feature, The Future, which premiered at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. Deftly balancing bathos and pathos, July’s film is a funny and unsettling tale about impending maturity and the responsibility that comes with it. In advance of July’s arrival, we posed a few questions to her.

  1. What have you been obsessing about lately?
    My poison oak. It’s going away more now, but there were a bunch of nights where I’d have fantasies that I could shoot my legs or cut them off and throw them out the window.
  2. What’s your guilty pleasure?
    I have pretty horrible taste in movies. If there’s an ad for a phenomenally bad-looking movie, usually a romantic comedy, I’m like ‘I definitely want to see that.’ I’m disappointed at the end but I have high hopes for them. The marketing completely works on me. I saw 50 First Dates on opening weekend. And a lot a Drew Barrymore movies. And 27 Dresses
  3. What was your worst job?
    I worked as a car door unlocker when people’d lock their keys in their car. It was a company called Pop-a-Lock and I was on call 24 hours so I’d get called out at like 3 am. Plus I wasn’t really that good at it, and that made it very stressful.
  4. What’s your favorite passage of poetry?
    That William Carlos Williams poem, the one with “sorry I ate all the plums.” My husband says that to me at random, so I associate it with him.
  5. What artist turned your world upside-down as a teenager?
    The Velvet Underground, and all their related spheres—Warhol, even Patti Smith, just reading about that whole era. And then the Pixies, because they were modern, so it was very different.
  6. What’s your favorite comfort food?
    French toast.
  7. What’s the most overrated virtue?
    Just being good in general. But I’m always trying to be good, so I’m hoping it’s overrated.
  8. When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
    When I was 16, right when I did my first play, which I put on in a punk club in my town. I remember thinking very consciously, “Ok this is it, this is what I’ll do.”
  9. What three items can always be found in your refrigerator?
    My husband has some pickled vegetables made by his mom, who passed away many years ago. He’s not ready to let go of those and they’re definitely not edible. I’m just being with them until it’s time to let them go.
  10. Which living person do you most admire?
    I admire my husband but I know him. People I don’t know? Michael Pollan seems very admirable to me. Usually I admire educators of some sort—Alice Waters is another.
  11. What artists are you most interested in at the moment?
    I brought with me on this trip a Lydia Davis book I’d read a milllion times before, just to remember that life can be good. So Lydia Davis. I’d haven’t seen Attenberg by Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari, but its trailer is influencing me, and I’m excited that it exists. And the visual artist Marie Lund. I met her briefly at the Venice Biennale and later looked her up and realized I love her work. Also the website Intelligent Clashing.
  12. If you could ask one question to every person on Earth, what would it be?
    How do you get through the day?
  13. What have you been listening to lately?
    Deer Hunter, Beach House, Lightning Dust.
  14. What is your least favorite sound?
    A mosquito.
  15. What is your favorite euphemism?
    This is not a favorite, but that word reminds me of how my parents would say they were going to go take a nap, and my brother and I always took that to be a euphemism for sex, but looking back, I don’t think they had sex that much, and not in the middle of the day while we were right there. But I remember trying to play dumb, or going outside or whatever. I think they really were taking a nap.
  16. What’s your favorite mode of transport?
    Walking.
  17. Which artistic trend annoys you the most?
    I’ve done this before myself, but when people refer to their “practice” – I can’t help but smile a little bit.
  18. Do you own a status symbol, and if so, what is it?
    Is a 2003 Prius a status symbol?

Director Olivier Assayas in Minneapolis this Wednesday!

We at the Walker are pleased to be one of three U.S. sites hosting filmmaker Olivier Assayas and a retrospective of new prints of his films (along with BAMcinématek in New York and the American Cinematheque in LA). This Wednesday, Kent Jones joins Assayas on the Walker Cinema stage to discuss his prolific filmography, inspirations, […]

We at the Walker are pleased to be one of three U.S. sites hosting filmmaker Olivier Assayas and a retrospective of new prints of his films (along with BAMcinématek in New York and the American Cinematheque in LA). This Wednesday, Kent Jones joins Assayas on the Walker Cinema stage to discuss his prolific filmography, inspirations, and history. In addition to the retrospective, October 30-31, Assayas’ new film Carlos screens exclusively in the Walker Cinema. Here’s the latest great press on the film:

New York Times review

Anatomy of a scene from Carlos

Tickets to the Dialogue are still available.

HOWL on the Walker Channel

Just in time for the Minneapolis release of the new film Howl, the Walker Channel now features the introduction and post-screening Q&A for the Twin Cities premiere of the film that took place in our Cinema on September 30. In attendance were directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and producers Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine Walker. […]

Just in time for the Minneapolis release of the new film Howl, the Walker Channel now features the introduction and post-screening Q&A for the Twin Cities premiere of the film that took place in our Cinema on September 30. In attendance were directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and producers Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine Walker. Take a look!

Oscilloscope Laboratories is releasing the film in Minneapolis on October 15th at the Landmark Lagoon.

Ousmane Sembene: A Silenced Continent Speaks

  Building on a history of partnerships between their two institutions, Walker Art Center film curator Sheryl Mousley and University of Minnesota associate professor Charles Sugnet have produced a timely retrospective of the work of Ousmane Sembene, to screen in the Walker Cinema November 5-20.  Sugnet specializes in fiction and film of the African diaspora, with […]

 
Building on a history of partnerships between their two institutions, Walker Art Center film curator Sheryl Mousley and University of Minnesota associate professor Charles Sugnet have produced a timely retrospective of the work of Ousmane Sembene, to screen in the Walker Cinema November 5-20.  Sugnet specializes in fiction and film of the African diaspora, with a focus on the work of Ousmane Sembene, and is currently leading a public class on the filmmaker and his work at the University. The piece that follows is an introduction for the series Ousmane Sembene: African Stories, written by Sugnet. An abridged version will appear in the upcoming November/December issue of the Walker Magazine.

Unlike many postcolonial artists and intellectuals, Africa’s “first” director did not travel to the metropole for an elite education. Born in 1923 in the Casamance region of Senegal, he left school early, worked as a fisherman, learned masonry and carpentry, fought with the Free French in Africa and Europe, participated in the strike on the Dakar-Niger railway in 1947-8 (the subject of his superb 1960 novel God’s Bits of Wood), and then stowed away to France and became a docker in Marseilles, getting his education from the labor union rather than from the Sorbonne. A 1951 work accident crushed his vertebrae, and he used the long convalescence to write, publishing The Black Docker, the first of his ten books of fiction, in 1956. Moving back to Senegal at independence in 1960 and touring West Africa, he realized how few Africans could read his French novels, and decided he could reach more people through film. He went to Moscow for cinema training with Mark Donskoi at the Gorki Studios, becoming a filmmaker at over forty years of age.

On his return to Dakar, he shot a 22 minute short called Borom Sarret (Cart Master, 1963), whose impact is difficult to overestimate. Heavily influenced in its simple outdoor shooting and its sympathy for the poor by Italian neorealist films like Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, it is crucially new in one respect: for the first time, we see a black African presented onscreen as a fully realized human subject. Because of the Laval decree (named for the Vichy prime minister later executed for collaboration with the Nazis), Africans in French colonies had been forbidden to film in Africa; restrictions in other colonies were also stringent. While European moviegoers were fed a steady diet of stereotypes about Africans through ethnographic shorts and travelogues shown before the feature, Africans were not allowed to represent themselves. As Sembene said to famed ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch in 1965: “What I hold against you . . . is that you look at us as if we were insects.” African cinema, in effect, had missed the first sixty years of this important new art form, but Sembene’s breakthrough changed that.

Black Girl

Soon after Cart Master, Sembene made Black Girl (La Noire de…, 1966), the first black African feature film, which was screened at Cannes, won the Prix Jean Vigo, and received the top prize at the Carthage Film Festival. Based on a Sembene short story, the film follows Joanna, a Dakar maid taken to the French Cote d’Azur by her employers, confined to the kitchen, and treated like an object, in what Sembene regards as an updated form of slavery. Black Girl’s claustrophobic sets and tight camera work emphasize Diouana’s confinement, while artful use of black-and-white film underlines the Manichean racial themes.  Joanna’s trajectory as an immigrant worker in the South of France parallels Sembene’s own, inaugurating a long series of African films dealing with immigration, and announcing a director who will continue to create powerful female characters in later films like Emitai (1971), Xala (1974), Ceddo (1976), Faat Kiné (1999), and Moolaadé (2004).

Conditions of funding and production had forced Sembene to dub the interior monologues of Joanna and the cart master in French: he turned this limitation to advantage and showed the  psychic violence of their being forced to create their inner selves in a language they do not speak. With Mandabi (The Money Order, 1968), Sembene was finally able to shoot in Wolof, Senengal’s principal African language. This story of a Dakar everyman thwarted by neocolonial bureaucracy was a popular hit, and younger directors remember it affectionately as the film that really opened the door for African cinema.

His most celebrated film, Xala (Temporary Impotence, 1974), selected by the British Film Institute (BFI) for its set of the hundred best films, is a perfect satire on the predatory, Europeanized elite of newly independent Senegal. Sembene’s comic depiction of the social mores of this class is nothing short of brilliant, and he criticizes them severely, but he does not want to “eliminate” them: he wants to help them see themselves and change their ways. Sembene can be didactic—he himself appears as a community teacher in Black Girl and as a scribe helping the illiterate in Mandabi—but he criticizes from among his characters, rather than arrogantly from above. As Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop put it, Sembene addresses his fellow citizens with an attitude of “between-ourselves-we-can-very-well-tell-the truth.

Xala

In addition to these contemporary films, Sembene made three “historical” works that educate for the present by critically retelling France’s self-satisfied version of its colonial past  from an African point of view: Emitai (1971), Ceddo (1976), and Camp de Thiaroye (1988). A planned  two-part, 180 minute epic about the life of anti-colonial leader Samory Touré (1830-1900), should have been added to this list, but it was never shot, though there is a massive, fully realized script. Sembene and his collaborator Paulin Vieyra tried through the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to raise money for it, and announced various shooting timetables, but simply could not get financing for an African film on this scale, especially for one that would be critical of European colonialism.  (Perhaps similar reasons account for there being no film of his best novel, God’s Bits of Wood.)

Sembene, with his heavy 35mm camera and his solid class analysis, is usually described—correctly– as a social realist, but this is only part of the truth. Ceddo (1977), for example, is extremely stylized and undercuts its own illusion of reality. He resolutely refused to make what he called a pamphlet-cinema, and his camera’s interest in the particularities of Senegalese social life produces a centrifugal effect that complicates “issues.” His features end, not with classic closure, but with a Brechtian freeze-frame that interrupts the ongoing action, forcing viewers to think about their own implication in what they’ve seen. Rather than just imitating reality, his work often tries to invent, to bring into being, a reality that does not yet exist.

He is not at all an African essentialist—when asked at a conference in the 1990’s about whether African cinema could be “indigenized,” he rejected the question and said that what’s important is not where or by whom cinema was invented, but whose interests it is used to serve. Yet his films do refer very delicately to a sort of African X factor (a mask, a carved walking stick, a certain kind of gesture or musical chord, a social practice) that Hegel and Marx and the European Enlightenment cannot quite explain

In Hollywood, Sembene’s nine features in forty years might seem a slender output, but in Africa, where there was no film industry as such—and no distribution mechanism allowing for profits from one film to finance the next—it is a monumental achievement. Each new project had to be a labor of love by an auteur who wrote the script, raised the money, rounded up the technicians, and trained the nonprofessional actors. In addition to making his own films, he was a tireless activist on behalf of African film, co-founding the African directors’ association, collaborating with Tunisian Tahar Cheriaa to coordinate the alternating biennial festivals in Carthage and Ouagadougou, fighting against censorship and monopoly distribution practices. He also continued to write fiction, basing many of the films on his own books: he frequently said that he personally preferred writing because it allowed him to go deeper and express more, but that filmmaking was a sort of social duty.

Sembene invented the term “mégotage” (building with cigarette butts) instead of “montage” to describe what African directors were forced to do. He sometimes had to mortgage the house he had built with his own hands to start the financing for a new film. Once in the late 1990’s, I was at his office when he was nervously waiting for assistant director Clarence Delgado to return from Morocco with the edit of Faat Kiné. We sat around a table made from one of those big wooden cable spools turned on its side that poor students and hippies used to use for furniture. There was a nail sticking dangerously out of the wooden surface, and as we talked, Sembene moved it back and forth with his fingers in an effort to break it off. The nail was stubborn, so he called to an assistant to bring a hammer. The reply came back that at least at that moment, the famous Domireew Productions film company did not own a hammer! Mégotage.

Moolaadé

He had frequently announced that he would consider his career a failure if Samory did not get filmed, but after the painful abandonment of Samory toward the end of the 1980’s, he went on to expose French atrocities in Camp de Thiaroye, to attack foreign aid dependency in Guelwaar, and to offer a sympathetic look at single motherhood in Dakar in Faat Kiné. At the age of 79, he still had the energy to sleep out for weeks on a small camp bed and work through the heat of the day in a sweltering Burkina Faso village to direct his last feature, Moolaadé, showing women’s resistance to the practice of genital cutting. He died in 2007, after enjoying world wide praise for Moolaadé. For over forty years, he entertained people while fearlessly taking on the important issues of his moment; as superstar singer Baaba Maal said, “he touches on the real problems, the ones you’re not supposed to talk about.”  In doing so, he made African film a recognized part of world cinema, and opened the way for younger directors follow their own differing paths.

—Charles Sugnet, University of Minnesota

Yellow Earth and The Trials and Tribulations of Screening 35mm in the 21st Century

As the person charged with the task of seeking out prints for films screened in the Walker Cinema, I’ve found historically that 35mm prints from the 1980s are the hardest to find. Why this is is anyone’s guess; perhaps films from the 80s aren’t old enough to be considered “classic,” but aren’t recent enough to […]

yellow_earth

As the person charged with the task of seeking out prints for films screened in the Walker Cinema, I’ve found historically that 35mm prints from the 1980s are the hardest to find. Why this is is anyone’s guess; perhaps films from the 80s aren’t old enough to be considered “classic,” but aren’t recent enough to be still lying around archives. This black-hole-of-a-decade rule has certainly been true of the last several Walker film retrospectives: for the Mike Leigh Regis Dialogue and Retrospective, it was High Hopes (1988) that proved exceeding difficult to locate, and for Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple (1984). For the current series The People’s Republic of Cinema: 60 Years of China on Film, it was the 1984 Chen Kaige film Yellow Earth.

By no means an obscure filmmaker, Chen Kaige is probably best known for his 1993 Oscar-nominated film Farewell My Concubine.  His earlier Yellow Earth announced the arrival of the so-called Fifth Generation Filmmakers in China, and is typically listed in the top five on “Best of” lists for Chinese films ever made. I did not predict that this major work by this well-known filmmaker would be so difficult to secure for the series—but it was.

To give a glimpse into the process by which film exhibitors can go through to screen films, and provide a sense of the rarity of the 35mm medium, I present to you my epic battle for Yellow Earth—in timeline form. My search began on July 1.

  • 7/1: I always start with the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). The company credits section for Yellow Earth lists International Film Circuit as the distribution company for the film. I send an inquiry to them. A general Google search for “Yellow Earth” and “screening” lets me know that Harvard Film Archive screened it last spring, so I also email a colleague there and await a response.
  • 7/2: International Film Circuit no longer holds the rights or prints of the film, and suggests I contact the British Film Institute (BFI).
  • 7/7: BFI informs me that they only have a 16mm print of Yellow Earth.
  • 7/14: I retrieve an archived file from the 1993 Regis Dialogue and Retrospective with Chen Kaige, for which we screened Yellow Earth. At that time, we dealt with an L.A-based company called China Film Import & Export Inc. for the print. I shoot off an email to them.
  • 7/22: Second email to China Film Import & Export. No response. When I try to phone them, I find the number disconnected.
  • 7/25: I email the China Film Archive (in Beijing), inquiring about several titles for the film series.
  • 7/28: The China Film Archive indeed has a print! They will look into its availability.
  • 7/30: The Harvard Film Archives replies to the Walker Associate Curator that they got the 35mm print from the China Film Archive, but have also heard of a print in Scotland and will inquire on our behalf.
  • 7/31: Harvard reports that the Scotland venue is in the process of sending the print to an archive.
  • 8/8: Still no word from the China Film Archive. I send a prodding email.
  • 8/11: As was suggested by the BFI, I inquire with the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA)  in England. They ask for a written request.
  • 8/17: Bad news. The China Film Archive finally gets back in touch to say that the film is already booked elsewhere–-with the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China looming, many film series are planned around the world.
  • I step up my efforts and send a follow up email to the ICA.
  • 8/31: Another follow up email to the ICA.
  • 9/2: ICA replies to say they no longer have the rights to the film. I call her directly and get a disgruntled response that in the past ICA has had to pay fees when other sites screened the film. I assure her that this would not be the case with us, and finally get her to agree to let me know who now holds the print so we can contact them directly.
  • 9/8: More nudging and she sends me to Perivale.
  • 9/9: The response: “We do not have a print at Perivale. The only copy on our system is out since Feb 2007 at Filmhouse Edinburgh!” At this point, I have forgotten that Harvard had referred us to Filmhouse Cinema in Edinburgh back in July. I call Edinburgh only to find out that the print had been sitting at their Cinema for a long time, and when Harvard called them on our behalf it made them think it really should be sent to a European archive for proper storage. It seems that our very inquiry may have made screening the film impossible, as the process of the new archive accepting it, inspecting it and sorting out rights issues will take more time than we have at this point.
  • 9/11: Shot-in-the dark query to the Chinese Taipei Film Archive. No dice.
  • 9/18: I’m starting to panic. I look up Chen Kaige’s agent on IMDB. The agency refers me to a Moonstone Entertainment, which produced Chen’s The Promise. They tell to contact the director of the company, “Etchie,” to whom I send a rambling email about Yellow Earth. No response.
  • 9/24: It’s gut-check time. The brochure for the People’s Republic of Cinema program is due at the printers. We scramble for a screening backup, and the best we can find is a DVD with both English and Japanese subtitles. I cross my fingers, and optimistically keep the 35mm listing in the brochure’s Yellow Earth description.
  • 10/8: Our University of Minnesota co-presentation partner Jason McGrath inquires on our behalf on several international listserves (Modern Chinese Literature and Culture and the Chinese Cinema List). A response comes in from someone who had previously worked at the USC School of Cinematic Arts archive, who says they had a print in the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive. A 35mm print inside the country??? Hurrah! But, this news proves too good to be true. Upon inspection it’s discovered that the print is in such bad shape it’s unscreenable.
  • Another response to the listserve: “Have they tried the BFI and the National Film Archive in the UK, or its equivalent in Canberra, Australia?” Well, this was interesting. I looked up the Australian archive and found The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. I send an email.
  • 10/9: Success! The NFSA agreed to allow us to screen their print. Finding a print can be only half the battle, as rights must be cleared, and several more frantic emails to the China Film Archive to ascertain the rights holder ensued. In the midst of this, as our screening date creeped closer and closer, I receive a call that an overseas package has arrived…Yellow Earth.

I hope you have the opportunity to enjoy Yellow Earth in glorious 35mm….

Now, on to the next series!

Special thanks to the British Film Institute, Contemporary Films (London), Fortissimo Films (Amsterdam), Celluloid Dreams (Paris), XStream Pictures (Beijing), and filmmaker Ying Liang for providing the films in this series. Very, very special thanks to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Coen Faves

As part of the celebration of the Walker’s 50th Regis Dialogue and Retrospective event—Joel and Ethan Coen: Raising Cain—we asked local and national film critics (many of whom have been Regis Dialogue interviewers themselves) and film exhibition programmers to weigh in: In 25 words or less, what is your favorite Coen brothers’ film, and why? As […]

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As part of the celebration of the Walker’s 50th Regis Dialogue and Retrospective event—Joel and Ethan Coen: Raising Cain—we asked local and national film critics (many of whom have been Regis Dialogue interviewers themselves) and film exhibition programmers to weigh in: In 25 words or less, what is your favorite Coen brothers’ film, and why? As you’ll see below, the question was so intriguing that several could not limit their answer to 25 words. Every person we asked chose a different film to laud—certainly a testament to the breadth and depth of the Coens’ work.

The 13-film retrospective kicks off on September 18th with the directors’ cut of Blood Simple, for which we are pleased to be screening the Coens’ own personal print. Following the film, the entire audience is invited to a reception in the Bazinet lobby. I’m confident this question of favorite Coens film will arise many times that night!

I have a special dark place in my heart for Blood Simple. It’s a magnificent first movie, filled with tension and glorious, murderously flawed individuals. —Euan Kerr, Senior Editor, Minnesota Public Radio News

Miller’s Crossing: “Simply a great gangster movie.”—Florence Almozini, BAMcinématek Program Director

“Like the underdog protagonists in so much of their work, my favorite Coen Brothers’ film is an underdog black comedy with a less than appealing title—Barton Fink. It’s not the most entertaining of their films (Fargo, hands down) nor their most innovative (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), but it remains their only film to date situated in the belly of the beast—Hollywood. It features a Harold Lloyd-bespeckled John Turturro in the titled role as a successful dramatist lured by the promises of studio system only to end up saddled with writing a wrestling picture. Barton Fink is, in other words, an allegory of the treacherous artistic journey that the Brothers, themselves, must navigate each time they begin a new feature project.”—Bruce Jenkins, Professor, Department of Film, Video, and New Media School of the Art Institute of Chicago, former Curator of the Walker Film/Video Department. Regis Interviewer for The Brothers Quay: Alchemists of Animation, 1996 and Stan Brakhage: The Art of Seeing, 1999.

The Hudsucker Proxy: “The Coens’ first big-budget effort is no studio picture compromise. It’s an unclassifiable, deliriously funny riff on 1950s workplace dramas, hula hoops, the clockwork machinations of fate, and karma, the great circle of life. You know, for kids!”—Colin Covert, film critic, Star Tribune

“I’m going with Fargo. I think it’s their most humanistic film, and those devastating final scenes with Marge feel like the perfect/bewildered response to the Reagan/Bush era.”—Chris Hewitt, film critic, Pioneer Press

The Big Lebowski: “Whether it’s because the Coen Brothers hail from these parts, the expression of true feelings has never been their characters’ strong suit—or their own. But as The Big Lebowski‘s climactic bear hug signals direct communication more warmly than anything in their oeuvre, I’d say the Coens have finally looked into their heart.” —Rob Nelson, film critic, excertped from City Pages (publication date: 1998).

O Brother, Where Art Thou?: “The Coens’ decision to treat traditional American music as a living presence makes this eccentric, picaresque period comedy perhaps the warmest production in their entire repertoire. And the music is superb, which doesn’t hurt.”—Kenneth Turan, film critic, Los Angeles Times. Regis Interviewer for Alexander Payne: A Sideways Glance at America, 2005.

The Man Who Wasn’t There: “You will not soon forget Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thorton), the antihero and narrator of the Coen brothers’ unforgettable neo-noir, with its sharp black-and-white photography and nonjudgmental tone.”—Howard Feinstein, New York-based film critic and a selector for the Sarajevo Film Festival (excerpted from the 2001 Sarajevo Film Festival catalogue). Regis Interviewer for Bela Tarr: Mysterious Harmonies, 2007.

Fargo is my absolute favorite, but Burn After Reading has grown on me the most. What seemed initially as silly and slapdash, a retro take on the ’60s Cold War spy movie, now feels like an entertainingly astute and up-to-date crafting of movie stars, genre storytelling, and satire that outshines most other recent attempts to re-invent the espionage film.”—Scott Macaulay, editor Filmmaker Magazine, co-editor FilminFocus.com. Regis Interviewer for Gus Van Sant: On the Road Again, 2003.

I GET A KICK OUT OF KLEIN

Paulina del Paso is a Mexican visual artist and filmmaker who will be appearing at the Walker to interview William Klein for his Regis Dialogue on June 26. She serves as the Associate Programmer of FICCO 2009 (Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival). She studied at the Film Training Center CCC (Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica) […]

Paulina del Paso is a Mexican visual artist and filmmaker who will be appearing at the Walker to interview William Klein for his Regis Dialogue on June 26. She serves as the Associate Programmer of FICCO 2009 (Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival). She studied at the Film Training Center CCC (Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica) in Mexico City, where she specialized in film direction. She has received various scholarships from the Mexican National Fund for Arts and Culture and is currently working on a documentary funded by a Rockefeller grant. Her work has participated in festivals and collective exhibitions around the world. Ms. Del Paso has written the following essay encapsulating Klein’s work. It’s a sneak preview into what will most certainly be a lively discussion with an engaging and original artist.
William Klein's MR. FREEDOM

William Klein's MR. FREEDOM

The multifaceted artist William Klein is everything but a conformist. He is in fact its antithesis, making the most of each opportunity he has to question all conventions, be it in the world of photography or film. He craves the eccentric and out of the ordinary, he explores behind the scenes and brings to light the absurd, the forgotten and the rejected. He seeks not to please but rather to provoke; with wit and humor he reveals what others choose to ignore.

Just after World War II, Klein, the 18-year-old Jewish New Yorker was sent to Germany to do his military service. Two years later he went to Paris, where he met the love of his life and future collaborator, Jeanne Florin. He studied painting with Fernand Léger, but soon began his photographic career shooting fashion photos for Vogue (New York) magazine and then moving to street photography. His first book, New York (Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels) changed the course of photography. His innovative choice of subject matter and use of wide-angle lenses, out-of-focus elements, and grainy film were criticized at the time but soon earned him international recognition.

In 1958, encouraged by his friends Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, Klein began his filmmaking adventure with the short Broadway by Light. With Times Square as the stage and the neon signs as ready-mades, Klein created an exquisite collage of words, lights, and abstract images that was considered to be the first Pop movie.

With the swinging sixties came Klein’s first feature film, the luscious Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1966), a satire on the extravagance and superficiality of the media and the fashion world. With a truly unique style, Klein cunningly cuts from one genre to another, from fiction to false documentary, passing through animation, musical comedy, and even a bit of cinéma verité.

As Klein approached his forties, the war in Vietnam was at its peak and he became overtly political. In 1967 he joined with Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens, and Chris Marker to make the film Loin du Vietnam, a direct attack on U.S. foreign policy.

Long before comic book characters became a trend in film, Klein created Mr. Freedom (1968), which features a superhero who incarnates the United States’ God-like attitude toward the world. This hilarious farce offers an unmerciful critique of the American government as well as other political doctrines such as Maoism and Stalinism. Initially banned in France, it presents a harmonious and yet disturbing explosion of color, violence, and humor.

During the late 1960s, Klein continued to reveal the cracks in the American dream and focused on the general world disillusionment of that era through such films as Grand soirs et petits matins (1968-1978), Festival Panafricain d’Alger (1969), and Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther (1970). In the latter, Klein portrayed the revolutionary and polemic Eldridge Cleaver who, wanted in the United States, had fled to Algeria in exile. Here we see two of Klein’s traits as a filmmaker: his talent for getting close to his subjects, and his ability to go where others have not. Klein has a special interest in turning his camera toward the outcasts of his time and adopting this challenging and provocative position from which to see the world.

In 1974 Klein completed the magnificent Muhammad Ali the Greatest (1964-74), his most renowned documentary. Intended to demonstrate “the polarization of good and evil in America around a heavyweight championship fight,” the film is much more than just a portrait of the controversial Ali; it also includes a valuable interview with Malcolm X only 10 days before he was assassinated. Unconventional in its narrative with masterful editing — quick and dynamic — the camera smooth and yet alert floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

Klein’s third narrative feature uses a stylistic approach influenced by Mondrian, with a minimalist setting, to tell its tale of Le Couple Témoin (1976), a movie ahead of its time about a model couple involved in a “Big Brother” government experiment. As we witness the ups and downs in the relationship between Claudine and Jean Michel, who remained caged and under constant surveillance, we are forced to wonder about government and state control masked under the promise of the ideal society.

His filmography continues with Hollywood, California: A Loser’s Opera (1977), The Little Richard Story (1980), The French (1981), In & Out of Fashion (1994), among others. At the turn of the century Klein filmed Messiah (2000). Somewhere between heaven and hell, Handel’s haunting music is performed by inmates in a Texan prison; a gay choir in Times Square; a group of policemen; a gospel choir; and the best soloists of the time. In Messiah we experience beauty and sadness as we witness the absurd and cruel contradictions of mankind.

Throughout his career Klein has remained an independent artist. He expresses his thoughts freely, and he does not put up with bullshit. In my opinion, William Klein is a true artist, one who creates out of need and not for recognition, an artist who sought his own voice far from the mainstream. Somewhat misunderstood and not to everyone’s liking, he has accomplished the Dadaist objective stated by Hugo Ball, “For us, art is not an end in itself … but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” The magic of his films is that they not only portrayed their time but also foresaw the truths of the future. Yes, indeed, Klein’s films are alive and kicking!

Gus Van Sant in the light of Béla Tarr

In her recent rave review of Paranoid Park, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis invokes Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Dargis’ connection is no accident, as Van Sant himself credits Tarr’s work in helping shape his own vision in making his last four films: Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park(screening this Wednesday at the Walker). […]

In her recent rave review of Paranoid Park, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis invokes Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Dargis’ connection is no accident, as Van Sant himself credits Tarr’s work in helping shape his own vision in making his last four films: Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and Paranoid Park(screening this Wednesday at the Walker). Last November the Walker was lucky enough to host a Regis Dialogue and Retrospective with auteur Tarr, whose mesmerizing, languid films are rarely shown in the U.S. Tarr was certainly a bit more tight-lipped about his thought process as a filmmaker than Van Sant, but analyzing the connections between the two is interesting nonetheless. I love how both Tarr and Van Sant’s work have so many similarities in terms of their sublime cinematography of long takes, shot with a slow-moving camera–and yet each is so rooted in their particular location: Tarr with his vast Hungarian wastelands, Van Sant with his Pacific Northwest ethos.

For a MOMA retrospective on Tarr, Van Sant wrote an essay about Tarr’s films, which I’ve reproduced below. When so many current filmmakers seem to eschew the past, I admire Van Sant for having the capacity to learn from a true master of cinema–and can’t wait to see Tarr’s influence manifest itself in Van Sant’s new work.

The Camera is a Machine

I have been influenced by Béla Tarr’s films and after reviewing the last three works Damnation, Satantango, and Werckmeister Harmonies, I find myself attempting to rethink film grammar and the effect industry has had on it. This is the way I see it. Cinema started as simple single-shot full-length proscenium compositions resembling theater, the only thing that it could find to reference to commercialize itself. By the next twenty years there was a new vocabulary. The close up, montage, and parallel storytelling fragmented the continuity of the previous proscenium-encased static-frame full-figure images. Separate fragments were now placed together to form meaning, the director could play with time and cinematic space. It was exciting. Was this an absolute inevitable direction or just one road cinema chose to take?

I believe these cinematic innovations complimented industry and created an Industrial Vocabulary. The director could tell you how to think about scenes by the way he played with separate pieces. He could control his characters, he could control time and story, and he could control you. Left behind were the proscenium and the static take, which were old-fashioned.

Things were modern, things were easier, like doing your laundry, there was a washing machine now that would do it for you. The modern cinema was an invention that could think for you, you didn’t have to do in anymore, like in the theater.

The Cinema of Industry has progressed into mega-industry and mega-cinema but remaining ideally the same? The cinematic vocabulary of a 2001 television show like Ally McBeal is virtually the same as Birth of a Nation’s. It is no surprise that Citizen Kane has been considered the greatest film of all time, a film about selling oneself down the river along with the copper, coal and timber while nostalgically longing for a lost Victorian era, and film vocabulary’s original beginnings, a Rosebud, that has been left behind in another century.

Béla’s stuff seems to be a successful and authentic departure, a wholly other cinema beginning over again. A cinema that needed to come from outside our Western Culture, a lost Rosebud, one of the many directions cinema might have before we sold ourselves down the river.

Béla’s creations use static full figure landscapes, as if referencing the 1800′s steam engine pulling into a station that would force audience members standing in the gallery to run for the exit so they wouldn’t get hit by the train. Somehow Béla has gotten himself back there psychically and learned things all over again as if modern cinema had never happened. An angry crowd marches down a street to burn down the hospital in Werckmeister Harmonies, a shot that lasts about five minutes. When asked after a screening why the shot of the crowd lasted for so long, Béla answered, “ because it was a long way.” The question was an honest one, why would the audience weaned on post modern industrial cinema sit and watch an angry mob for so long when they have been used to a shot that lasts only a couple of seconds, even a shot ten or fifteen seconds would be too long. But the answer, although funny, is also an honest one, it was a long enough way that to show it for five minutes it affects the way we think about the event, the mob, the march, the hospital. Not shorthanded, not as clipped as in Industrial Vocabulary, but played out lyrically and poetically, letting us in on the thoughts rather than just saying one thing like, the mob walked, rather; the mob walked, and grimaced and raised their torches, and walked in synchronized and unsynchronized steps, advanced, fell back, and when they arrived it had been a long way.

Hitchcock said in response to a question by Franois Truffaut that major stylistic film changes could happen through character, perhaps, but here is a very major change through ideas.

Béla’s works are organic and contemplative in their intentions rather than shortened and contemporary. They find themselves contemplating life in a way that is almost impossible watching an ordinary modern film. They get so much closer to the real rhythms of life that it is like seeing the birth of a new cinema. He is one of the few genuinely visionary filmmakers.

–Gus Van Sant, MoMA Bela Tarr Retrospective Catalogue, 2001.

A few words on Béla Tarr…

With films characterized as remarkable, mesmerizing, and devastating–not to mention, in the case of Satantango, a bona-fide masterpiece–Béla Tarr’s upcoming Regis Dialogue and Retrospective (September 14–October 21) is sure to be an extraordinary experience. For a sneak peek into the mind of the master, here is film critic Howard Feinstein’s Regis essay on Béla Tarr. […]

Bela Tarr

With films characterized as remarkable, mesmerizing, and devastating–not to mention, in the case of Satantango, a bona-fide masterpiece–Béla Tarr’s upcoming Regis Dialogue and Retrospective (September 14–October 21) is sure to be an extraordinary experience. For a sneak peek into the mind of the master, here is film critic Howard Feinstein’s Regis essay on Béla Tarr. Feinstein will be interviewing Tarr on-stage at the Walker Cinema on September 14.

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Critics have generally divided the famously uncompromising Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s films into two distinct stylistic periods, with a truncated TV version of Macbeth (1982) marking a transitional point. Under the influence of the “ documentary fiction” movement led by Istvan Darday (a politicized socialist realism), under whom he had been an assistant director, as well as John Cassavetes, cinema vérité, and possibly even the British “ kitchen sink” school, he shot his first three features, known as the “ proletarian trilogy:” Family Nest (1979), The Outsider (1981), and The Prefab People (1982). Here we have in urban settings handheld camera, nonprofessional actors, some improvised dialogue, multiple closeups, and conventional editing rhythms as Tarr explores the social and economic conditions– especially a major housing shortage–that play havoc with the personal lives of his perpetually frustrated characters. (The seeds of his obsession with cinematic time can be seen, for example, in the meaningful ellipses.) In these claustrophobic environments, people become aggressive and communication is impossible. Men are mostly irresponsible and either actively or passively oppressive toward women, who may be victims but are decent and sensitive to one another’s plights.

Besides a concern with working-class people and the social circumstances of their private lives, these early low-budget features have other elements in common with the better known works of the later Tarr: whether unconscious or not, the striking compositions of his mise-en-scène, not to mention powerful ambient sound, reveal an aesthete’s eye and ear. He has always been acutely aware of the process of seeing, which he will later take to a degree that undermines the conventions of cinema as we know it. A tiger doesn’t change its stripes.

In the one-hour Macbeth, which has the feel of live television, gritty realism has been replaced by a spare stylization. He doesn’t edit so much as follow his actors up and down, left and right, in real time. It comprises only two takes, but the second is 55 minutes long. Tarr is developing a logic of film time that is based on the action (or non-action) of his characters and the landscape in which they function–even if here it is within the confines of a theatrical proscenium. (The 1984 Almanac of Fall, shot almost entirely in interiors in which he uses architecture and objects to block his more bourgeois characters and comment on their nasty behavior, can also be thought of as a transitional work.)

In most of the films of Tarr’s so-called second period, characters (and viewers) stare out of windows for prolonged periods–just as his camera, no longer handheld and frequently panning ever so slowly, surveys the minutiae of their lives and the (generally rural) landscapes that they inhabit with a bare minimum of cuts, and with a remarkably sharp depth of field. (He has frequently referred to location as a character in his work, and he and longtime partner, editor, and sometime coscreenwriter gnes Hranitzky spend a great deal of time finding the perfect locales in which to shoot.) Damnation (1988), Satantango (1994), and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) were all done in collaboration with novelist Lszl Krasznahorkai, Hranitzky, cinematographer Gbor Medvigy, and composer Mihly Vg. (There is never any doubt as to who is boss.) On one level, the extremely long takes are a visual correlative to Krasznahorkai’s famously long sentences. Someone, or a group, may walk for 10 minutes or longer, but the camera travels with them. Even if a section is, as in his seven-and-one-half hour magnum opus Satantango, an observation of the ordinary activity of an inebriated doctor in his home, Tarr has come as close as any filmmaker to finding a parallel to a gifted writer’s detailed descriptions of life’s banalities. What is truly astounding, especially in Satantango, is that long sequences are not necessarily successive but concurrent–“ meanwhile, back at the ranch,” without the crosscutting that D. W. Griffith made into convention. Redundancy is a recurring trope. No wonder Susan Sontag referred to Tarr among those directors whose films are “ heroic violations of the norms.”

In these last three films, Tarr has elaborated upon the fog machine that graced the Macbeth stage for texture and commentary. We still find fog, but also endless rain, mud, pigs, the peeling paint of rundown buildings, and large empty spaces. Through simple, generally unsympathetic characters, mostly peasants, he builds a visual and aural world–natural sounds have never sounded so dramatic–in which people are nasty, often drunk, criminal, and either susceptible to authoritarian leadership or authoritarians themselves. Incredibly quiet sequences alternate with boisterous pub scenes. The films are in black and white, but in a wide variety of subtle, calculated shades–including the variations on gray praised by Lotte Eisner when she described the German Expressionists of the silent era–to fit the situation at hand. (Tarr has said he despises the falseness of Kodak color stock.)

Some call these movies bleak, but I think of them as lying somewhere between anthropology and allegory. This is the landscape of a country beaten down by Communism, by false hopes, by the elements themselves. Tarr claims that these works are not at all political, although he acknowledges that he hopes they reveal a “ social sensibility.” Many critics call them metaphysical, cosmic, cousins to Tarkovsky (whom Tarr finds “ soft”). Tarr will have none of that: for him, they are concrete and one should not think too much about such lofty things. (It’s ironic that he originally studied philosophy.) No matter: these latter films ooze from their groundedness a strong sense of spirituality.

What is rarely mentioned is the humor of the films and the director himself, whose attitude toward life does not appear otherworldly. When asked recently whether things were improving in his homeland, the 51-year-old Tarr told Time Out New York, “ We Hungarians were always too lazy–too lazy for Fascism, too lazy for Communism. We are eating too much, drinking too much, making love too much.”

His most recent film is The Man From London, which premiered in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was adapted by Krasznahorkai from a Georges Simenon novel. Shot in Sardinia with an international cast, it is set in a small seaside town. The film is a perfect marriage of Tarr’s aesthetic sensibility and the policier. Complementing the trench coats and bright bulbs that suit the genre are the dark blackand- white stock (Fred Kelemen’s cinematography is mesmerizing) and the director’s propensity for shadows, fog, unbelievably slow pans and tracking shots, and somber, held accordion chords. Tarr nevertheless adds some signature touches from outside the genre, like the sequence of drunken eccentrics in a hotel bar. The basic plotline: Maloin (Czech actor Miroslav Krobot) is a signalman at a dockside railway who witnesses a robbery and murder, then steals the loot. Stalked by the man he has burned, he wrestles with his conscience about how to keep the money.

We are far from the plains of landlocked Hungary.

–Howard Feinstein, adapted from his essay in the 2006 Sarajevo Film Festival catalogue. New York–based Howard Feinstein has written on film for such publications as the Guardian, Vanity Fair, Time Out, the Times of London, Sight & Sound, Filmmaker, Premiere, Indiewire, and Out. He has curated exhibitions on ethnic conflict in ex-Yugoslavia and since 1999 has been a selector for the Sarajevo Film Festival, where he also programs Panorama (fiction), Panorama Documentaries, and Tribute to, the annual directors’ retrospectives (Béla Tarr received a tribute in 2006).

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